On Transitioning to a Traditional Tool Chest

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Blog entry by Smitty_Cabinetshop posted 07-22-2014 12:15 PM 7192 reads 2 times favorited 33 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Not going to pretend any of this is ground-breaking, just jotting a few notes to LJs that others may find interesting or useful as part of their own, unique journey. Building a tool chest is one of a number of ‘trend’ activities that have captured the attention of a significant number of people. Just like building a Roubo, constructing an auto-adjust leg vise and using a portable twin screw vise (or “Moxon”) specifically for joinery or a ‘bench on bench.’ There’s a particular interest in the Dutch form of travel-ready chests too, in addition to the traditional English variety. That C. Schwarz has blogged or written about each of these topics is not the point of these comments at all. It’s that I have a tool chest (product of a rebuild blogged about here) and have struggled somewhat to make it anything more than glorified tool storage. Is that necessarily a problem? For me, it’s more of an admission than a problem, but one that I’d like to correct over time. And that’s what this (long) blog explores.

So You Have a Tool Chest, Now What?

Familiarity with hand tool woodworking is a must to me. The precision that comes from a truly sharp plane, chisel or saw enables trim-to-fit precision with one-off pieces that’s unequaled. There’s a close connection between worker and work piece, I think, when hearing protection isn’t required. Just the ‘schhhhck’ of the plane… Nice. And when you have hand tools piling up on and under the bench, the merits of storing them in a tool chest vs. pegboard or wall cabinet became apparent. A toolchest could very well be the answer to storage problems in a small or large shop, but I’ve reached an impasse with mine: Love the idea of a tool chest, it’s a welcome addition to the shop, but it’s simply not the place I reach for first when I’m at the bench and have a task to do. Without re-inventing the wheel, why?

Tools come first, then the challenge of where to put them settles in. I have a window rack for hand saws, an open plane till, a saw till, under-bench storage and two wall cabinets. Part of the reason for not depending on a tool chest should be apparent: I have other places to put tools that already support the way I work. Take, for instance, the tool rack that’s nailed to the back edge of my bench:

It’s a pine hack-job of a project, but holds a bench pup, several sizes of dividers, every screwdriver I normally reach for, two sizes of combination square and my everyday mallet. To insert the tool chest as the de rigueur starting point for every task, the tools in this rack would be in the top drawer of said chest. Have I moved those tools and emptied the rack? Nope. Going to? Double nope. And that’s the opening bar of a recurring theme: Unless my ‘favorites’ go into the box, what’s in there won’t come out. But tool chests aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition, at least for me. It’s a battle for relevance, then, and not supremacy. As long as a tool is accessible, I win.

The second (and probably largest) contributor to tool chest disuse is my Roubo cabinet. It has drawers dedicated to purpose, like a chest would; marking / measuring, hammering / cutting, drilling/chiseling and filing / shaping. Here are the top two, then a decent view of all five drawers as well as the bench and block planes that sit between the cabinet and bench top, always at the ready.

Logistically, I couldn’t fit all of the tools from this cabinet into the tool chest even if I wanted to; there are more than what could fit AND the dimensions of the sliding tills within the chest aren’t right. The largest till has an inside height of 3”; I had to carve the bottom out for the knob of my favorite brace (an Oak Leaf model from my dad’s shop). Not sure where to go with all this, but that’s been the problem exactly. I have four sets of chisels; they’re not all going into the chest. The two most-used sets are in the Roubo cabinet. One set is in the chest, but in a tool roll inside the bottom compartment, so I had ‘cats and dogs’ in the top drawer and none of those got used either. So yesterday I pulled the roll to the top till and the stray chisels were removed altogether. A positive development for sure.

That move allowed me to reorganize everything in the top till according to useability. I don’t foresee a pressing need to keep a curved spoke shave handy at this point (it isn’t sharpened and I don’t know how to use it yet) so it came out. To others it makes sense to fill a tool chest as you see fit and live with it a while. At some point the day may come (like it did for me) that contents get dumped onto the benchtop and culled for keepers vs. ‘other.’ At that point there’s progress towards making the chest a real contributor.

Unless You Are a Minimalist…

… you’ll have more than one copy of most of hand tools. Some will become favorites, too. I can’t imagine the Dutch chest is anything more than a smaller set of otherwise-favorites tools that travels easier than a traditional chest. That’s not a bash, but a realization to share. Building a tool chest won’t redress the natural tendency to accumulate quality tools. To the contrary, it will highlight the fact that a builder may have too many tools. Stuff them in if you’d like, but that ease of access will suffer. Two suitable wall cabinets help me keep a handle on unique, but seldom-used tools that aren’t in the Roubo cabinet or the tool chest. And it’s an on-going challenge to limit myself to what fits. I doubt it gets any easier over time, but I remain committed to outfitting the chest with user tools that I want to reach for.

Cabinet vs. chest boils down to choice, of course, but even that reality is sometimes transitive. Take my handsaws (please!), for instance. I chose to build a sliding saw till inside the tool chest. It’s cool, and took a decent amount of time to assemble and fit.

There are two full-sized saws inside, a rip and a cross-cut, so all is well, right? Well, not exactly. I actually prefer 20” panel saws over these full-sized examples, so the chest is not required for the typical sawing task. Ah, another blow to utility… It’s not a big deal, but I’ve decided not to change the till to fit smaller saws. I have decided, though, to sharpen the saws in the chest to enhance their user appeal… And there there are the backsaws in the main compartment.

Having saws buried in this way is already a user-loser when compared to the window rack and saw till, but bear with me. These backsaws are Cincinnati Saw Co. (re: Geo. Bishop) models and represent my first forays into vintage tool buying.

I put them in the chest as a reward of sorts, but now I don’t reach for them. Why? Because they’re hard to get to AND because (until yesterday) there was a chisel roll on top of them. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!

So What’s the Payoff, Anyway?

Here’s the irony of the entire situation: celebrating the use of a tool chest as if it were inherently virtuous to do so. Some will no doubt build a chest without realizing they’re big, really big actually, and take up floor space that otherwise might have more productive uses. And those builders may, at some point, get rid of the chests in some fashion. I’m guessing that’s what happened to 90%+ of the chests that were otherwise common at the turn of the last century. Without purpose, nothing survives in our workshops very long.

I’m not one to celebrate ornamentation over purpose. I want the chest to represent capability, in a sense. I’d like to be able to point to my tool chest and state with confidence that I could build a table or bench or whatever using only the tools inside. That’s efficiency and proficiency, and I can’t get there if the chest doesn’t become something that is opened and orchestrated on a regular basis. A long-term objective, one I don’t think I’ll be giving up on. Do I ever envision taking the chest somewhere and working out of it? Yes, all the time. Will I? Doubt it. But the idea that I someday could holds value for me.

The saga continues, then! As always, thanks for reading.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

33 comments so far

View stefang's profile


16730 posts in 3841 days

#1 posted 07-22-2014 12:53 PM

Nice blog Smitty. I have never considered having a tool chest because I think of one as being made for portability and it was most certainly much used by journeymen carpenters in the old days. I could see a big advantage in having one if I still had my mountain cabin. I really enjoyed making stuff with hand tools up there even though I couldn’t call myself a woodworker in those days.,Hand tools were a necessity there with no available electric. It seemed we always had some small repairs to do, benches to make or storage related projects. That said, I certainly see the charm in having a tool chest for excess, antique and or duplicate tools providing there is enough floor space available, which I don’t have, but many others do. My hand tool collection is pretty small and uninteresting, but If I had yours I wouldn’t be able to part with them, so your chest makes sense to me.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View johnstoneb's profile (online now)


3128 posts in 2680 days

#2 posted 07-22-2014 01:25 PM

Excellent blog, makes a lot of sense. I have looked athe tool boxed (especially the dutch box) and thought about making it but haven’t been able to justify it yet primarily for the reasons you give. I don’t take my tools on the road, although my daughter live about 400 miles away and always has projects when I get there. I think I have just posibly justified building a tool box. I walway sem to be short tools when I am there. Damn I may have to think on this.

-- Bruce, Boise, ID

View terryR's profile


7535 posts in 2816 days

#3 posted 07-22-2014 01:49 PM

An excellent read, Smitty! Thanks for sharing your perspective…very valuable information to a new hand tool user!

My tool chest is only 1/2 built, but I’ve already noticed that only my ‘user’ tools will fit, and not 100% of them. In order to take advantage of the dust seal on my chest, and the silica to keep humidity low on the inside, I will have to load the chest with tools every night, and un-load them in tha morning to resume work. Losing efficiency IMO.

However, after just visiting my Mom for the weekend, I certainly need a portable tool box. Smaller than the traditional chest I’ve started…you are correct about a newby NOT realizing how much floor space I was about to lose by building a 23×23x40” chest. Luckily it’s on wheels! Currently being used as a side table next to the bench to hold tools on the top surface. Silly, huh!

But, my shop is in a constant state of change now, especially with a planned move cross-country, so I’m learning what works for me as I work. :) I’m pretty sure wall hung cabinets will be my solution to tool storage in the next shop. Plus the tool chest. Plus drawers underneath every work surface as close to the bench as possible.

Or maybe I should collect fewer hand tools?

Nah! LOL.

-- tr ...see one, do one, teach one...

View chrisstef's profile


17960 posts in 3514 days

#4 posted 07-22-2014 01:56 PM

Interesting topic here Smitty. Like most shop fixtures everything has a place … or it doesn’t. I like the idea of a traditional tool chest but the functionality of it kind of hinders my thoughts on building one. Recently ive acquired a couple smaller tool boxs and a machinists style tool chest. Ive loaded all my saw sharpening files and accessories into the small tool box and loaded screw drivers, files, and other smaller measuring and marking devices in the chest. Im finding that smaller boxes are pretty handy for specialty stuff that I don’t reach for often. Theyre not big enough to lose tools inside and don’t require much digging to get to what I need.

The tool storage conundrum will go on forever. Its all about how you work, where you work, and what you need from time to time.

-- Its not a crack, its a casting imperfection.

View jjw5858's profile


1135 posts in 3110 days

#5 posted 07-22-2014 02:15 PM

This is a great piece Smitty. I have just started to reason with myself that having 4-5 #4 Stanley Planes and 2-3 of the other #3, Jack Planes etc. is clogging my workspace up and not at all efficient to doing a project without useless clutter. I am aiming to reduce the amount of Handsaws, braces, etc. as well. I have decided to just keep up to task my favs of the bunch and keep them as my real users and store the rest.

I certainly can understand this situation of a lot of tools stored in a chest and not really using them as much. There are some interesting ideas in your writing and some really nice tools.

I would also add that every woodworker is different in how they work. So be at piece with your style and how you feel comfortable working. I say if it works for you and you feel good having your tools at your bench, than this may be the best fit for you.

Your projects are always looking great so your surely doing something right!

Be well and thanks for a really good article.


-- "Always continue to learn, laugh and share!" JJW

View AnthonyReed's profile


10105 posts in 2948 days

#6 posted 07-22-2014 02:19 PM

It’s always nice to read your insightful and informative blogs Smitty. The thoughtful and philosophical way in which you approach your craft is inspiring to say the least.

Thank you.

-- ~Tony

View Ron Harper's profile

Ron Harper

133 posts in 2424 days

#7 posted 07-22-2014 02:31 PM

Smitty…... You have articulated very well that this is a very complex matter. Tony Konavaloff works out of a chest and has for years. He loves it. Schwarz literally travels all over the world, so a minimalist kit and a chest makes perfect sense for him. I woke up, before I built mine to realize that I am 69 years old. Have worked from racks and shelves for 35 years. Really no reason to change now. I also think what you build has a real bearing on what tools you need/use and how you should best store them. Everybody needs to work this out for themselves.

-- Ron in Kokomo

View helluvawreck's profile


32086 posts in 3374 days

#8 posted 07-22-2014 02:35 PM

You have a wonderful collection of tools. The tool boxes have a character all their own. Nice work.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View mpounders's profile


935 posts in 3403 days

#9 posted 07-22-2014 02:37 PM

Necessity and ease of use are the driving factors for me. I went on a mission trip to Mexico to help remodel a house for an orphanage many years ago and I built a toolbox to take with me. I wanted to be able to lock and secure the tools I did take and the top also had to function as a sawhorse and work bench. Since space was limited, I took only what was necessary. But those functions were no longer convenient or necessary months later and it was dismantled. I now travel frequently to carving seminars and other places to carve and of course need a variety of tools, depending on where I go. I built a rack to hold gouges and knives on my bench and sized it to fit in my tool bag, so it is easy to transport and all my favorite tools are in familiar places and order. My larger gouges are in a tool roll that fits easily in the same bag, and I still have room for gloves, tape, strops, and a clipboard. I carry my power sharpener, fold-up carving bench, and other tools separately. I like to use a lot of the plastic storage boxes that can be easily stacked and can be used for tools, to protect carvings, and for spare wood. Now days, a concern is with size: the boxes have to be of a size and weight that I can carry, sometimes up a flight of stairs, by myself! I love a beautiful toolbox, with all the custom fitted holders and compartments. But maybe it’s just a display case, if you don’t actually use the tools or it’s not suitable for how you work? My last tool rack functions better and holds more tools than my previous versions. But it will be modified, rebuilt, or replaced as tools are added or replaced. In carving, you really don’t have to have a lot of tools to produce your work; several instructors I’ve had, bring all their tools in a cigar box.

-- Mike P., Arkansas,

View ToddJB's profile


8539 posts in 2638 days

#10 posted 07-22-2014 02:40 PM

Thanks for the write up, Smitty. There is something to be said about forcing yourself to pause your regular patterns and workflow to attempt to learn something from those of yesteryear.

-- I came - I sawed - I over-built

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


16190 posts in 3126 days

#11 posted 07-22-2014 03:27 PM

Kudos to the commentary, lots of personal insight being offered. And thanks for the kind words on the blog itself.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View GrandpaLen's profile


1652 posts in 2780 days

#12 posted 07-22-2014 03:30 PM

Smitty, I thoroughly enjoyed your Blog “Tool Chest Refurb”, installments #1 – #19, the Save, Restore and Consequential Refitting of the interior and the finale, which rendered a Chest, liken to a museum quality display of the traveling master carpenter’s essentials.
I also looked forward to each posting of your “Wall Hung Tool Cabinet” Blog, #’s 1 – 21, which in itself was as much of a marvel. The evolution of an old Hoosier cabinet topper, to that of a Fine, yet user friendly, Woodcraft Shop storage solution was North of brilliant, IMHO.

Kudos to both projects and your Blogs will forever live as tutorials in preservation, to our good fortune.
Each storage solution having merits of their own, I personally prefer the convenience and accessibility of a cabinet in my own shop and totally understand the quandary of the topic of this Blog.

The Chest is a ‘Traveler’ by intent and makes available those essentials when offsite of the Shop.
All things being what they are, and they are, daily routines in the shop, working out of a portable chest would be a monumental PITA, of course this is again, just MHO. ;-) say potato, I say potahto…

Best Regards. – Len
Work Safely and have Fun.

-- Mother Nature should be proud of what you've done with her tree. - Len ...just north of a stone's throw from the oHIo, river that is, in So. Indiana.

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


16190 posts in 3126 days

#13 posted 07-22-2014 03:35 PM

And remember, Len, when you say potahto, I stain wood with it.


Brevity being the soul of wit and all, I’d agree that reaching for things any deeper than the first two tills is indeed a pain in the arse… And a most humble thank you for your comments.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View theoldfart's profile


10903 posts in 2958 days

#14 posted 07-22-2014 03:56 PM

^ just not used to bending over :-)

Roughly 90% of my tools are in my chest. I’ve not had any regrets working out of it. It helps to pause and plan what I’m going to do. I’m just finishing a traveling chest, my intentionis to fill it with wooden planes and the like to hold doe the weight. At least that’s the plan.

Smitty thanks for the insightful ruminations. I’ve followed your postings since arriving at LJ’s and they have guided me I my endeavors. Thanks

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


16190 posts in 3126 days

#15 posted 07-22-2014 04:17 PM

^ just not used to bending over :-)

- theoldfart

And I blame myself to a certain extent, as I need to get in shape and optimize the layout inside the chest. That said, when all is said and done, getting inside the bottom of the chest (on wheels) by sliding tills while taking a knee is not as convenient as a cabinet that’s chest high.

I marvel at the way you’ve totally integrated work and tool chest, it’s amazing. You’ve got much in common with Mike P. above – modify and adapt as required.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

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